One agency, two markets: can Grey’s Singapore and Malaysia merger perform across borders?
Bringing together two of its biggest offices in South East Asia offers chance to put ‘borderless’ philosophy to the test.
Irene Wong and Graham Drew will be leading teams in Singapore and Malaysia / Grey
Malaysia and Singapore share languages, history and a fierce love of Hainanese chicken rice. Now, they’ll share an ad agency too as Grey’s Singapore operations merge into its Malaysian office under new leaders.
Chief executive officer Irene Wong and chief creative officer Graham Drew, who previously ran the Malaysian business, have been elevated to take charge of the network’s neighboring Singapore location.
As Grey Singapore boss Konstantin Popovic prepares to depart, they’re leading a merger that will see Singaporean and Malaysian teams work together on regional and local briefs.
According to Wong, it’s the first step towards a more connected approach across the whole of the Asia Pacific region for Grey. “The truth is, all studios have things that they are great and not so great at, so being able to fill each other’s gaps and becoming a stronger unit across the board is what this is all about,“ she says.
“We have multiple cases where teams have been pulled in to work on APAC briefs. The only difference here is that instead of a case-by-case basis, we intend to do it across everything in Malaysia and Singapore. We are already seconding talent between the two offices, which will only grow.”
While there have been specific mergers set up in the past, the move to remote working during the pandemic made the case for a more permanent approach. “Malaysia and Singapore are neighbors, so the talk of us sharing resources has gone on for years,” says Wong. “But what fueled this move was a combination of the natural merging of working practices that we all realized during the pandemic, combined with the financial and client opportunities that became increasingly obvious. In short, both studios grow if we work together.”
Despite their links, Singapore and Malaysia are divergent markets with different needs. So will merging Grey’s operations in the area hobble its ability to reach local audiences?
Drew says the agency will be treading carefully, but that external perspectives might also improve its work. “Singapore and Malaysia share a lot of their influences, but the cultures are distinctly nuanced and different, so it is crucial that we have part of the team on the ground in each country to sense check and craft ideas,” he argues.
“That said, the initial sparks, the references and the inspirations can come from anywhere – in fact, it’s often good that they come from somewhere else. We’ve all witnessed that moment when a person from a different team came in with a weird, ignorant thought that changed the whole pitch. Not knowing the rules can change everything – I want to mechanize that.”
Wong says the merger should amplify its creative firepower for each market, rather than dilute it. “From a work perspective, we will have more than doubled our creative firepower, which can be shared from both a resource and production perspective.”
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Furthermore, Grey’s region-spanning clients will benefit from an approach that matches their own scale. “Client servicing on the ground is crucial and will not change in either market. Where we have the advantage is being able to combine that for our regional clients,” says Wong.
Under Drew and Wong, Grey Malaysia has been recognized for its creative work across a string of award schemes. Drew is confident he can take its guiding philosophy and share it with the Singapore team.
He says: “I think every creative wants the same thing – to make work that they can be proud to show their mates and their mum. But the sad reality is that, if you let it, we can all get lost in a pile of other people’s projects that we really don’t want our name on.
“Everyone needs that ’one thing’ that they genuinely care about it. My job is to help people find that thing and then give them the fuel to make it. Because that’s the other plague of the creative dept – they are graveyards of good intentions. The ideas aren’t the hard bit – the making is the really hard part.
“The real difference we made in Malaysia is that we just didn’t stop until some of those special projects got made. I’ve already seen at least three gems from the Singapore team. My job is simple – find a way to get them made. Simple doesn’t mean easy, but at least I know what I need to do.”
The pair hope the merger could be a powerful spur to recruitment too. “Utilizing talent shouldn’t be dependent on geography,” says Drew.
Wong notes that Malaysian and Singaporean creatives now have the opportunity to work on a greater variety of clients and briefs. She adds: “The opportunities to work across both markets, physically and virtually, are now open to everyone.”